INDIANA — After writing two news articles on confrontations between students and campus sidewalk Evangelicals, a DePauw University student was asked to step down as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper when she expressed sympathy towards the preachers in a first-person column.
Michael Koretzky, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Region 3 Director, first exposed the controversy, condemning a journalism professor for her role in the firing in his blog post and offering the fired student a chance to share her story on behalf of the SPJ at the annual Spring National College Media Convention next month in New York.
On Sept. 23, members of The Campus Ministry USA — a nonprofit Christian group based in Terre Haute, Indiana — traveled to DePauw to practice “confrontational Evangelism” bearing a variety of colorful signs, such as “You Promote Rape,” “Repent or Perish,” and “You Deserve Hell.”
The group targeted groups they deemed as sinners, especially the lesbian, bisexual, transgender and gay community, those who are pro-abortion rights, and feminists, by taunting them as they walked by. Soon after the sidewalk preachers arrived, students began fighting back.
Tensions heightened, and members of the community were tackled to the ground by the Greencastle Police Department for getting violent with the preachers. In response, the administration held an open forum to address the protests after the group was escorted off campus.
When the Evangelical group came back to campus a week later, DePauw Public Safety created a double barricade to separate the preachers and the students. But this time, students counter-protested the group’s message through dance, laughter and messages of love.
Nicole DeCriscio, former editor-in-chief of The DePauw, followed this story closely throughout the semester, writing articles first about the students’ outrage, then about their acceptance of the preachers’ presence. After she perceived the saga to be complete, as the group told her it was heading to another campus, DeCriscio wrote a column for a national college news site, The Odyssey, scolding DePauw students for their treatment of the preachers.
In her column, DeCriscio said that when The Campus Ministry USA arrived for their third visit on Oct. 16, she decided to cross the barricade and give them a few sandwiches and beverages. She said her Christianity calls her to show Christ’s love to others, regardless of their nature, and expressed disappointment with her fellow students for not doing the same.
“I’m sad that my brothers and sisters in Christ at DePauw, which even include some members of the faculty and staff, failed to demonstrate Christ’s love to [a campus ministries member] and company,” DeCriscio wrote.
The next day, she received a phone call from Meg Kissinger, a visiting professor of journalism at DePauw who works with The DePauw staff in an advising capacity.
“[Kissinger] told me there was a problem with my column, and that I had made a huge breach in ethics,” DeCriscio said.
DeCriscio then met with Kissinger and Jonathan Nichols-Pethick, director of the Pulliam Center for Contemporary Media and associate professor of media studies, to talk about how her column affected The DePauw. The following week, DeCriscio appeared before the publications board of the newspaper and, ultimately, was asked to step down as editor-in-chief because she had established a conflict of interest. Though she was asked to remain on the newspaper staff as a general reporter or as a columnist, DeCriscio said she decided to leave The DePauw altogether.
DeCriscio said she believes she wasn’t fired because she created a conflict of interest, but that the content of her column was viewed unfavorably by others.
“I was able to sympathize with [the preachers], even though the rest of campus had completely written them off,” DeCriscio said. “There was a lot of hatred towards them.”
Nichols-Pethick said he can’t express strongly enough how “off-the-mark” this suspicion is. He said every discussion relating to DeCriscio’s future at the paper was built on “the fact that the decision to suspend her was in no way related to her religious views” or other views expressed in her column.
Kissinger agreed, noting that the board encouraged DeCriscio to write her own column in The DePauw about her religious passions.
The decision to fire DeCriscio may seem harsh, Kissinger said, but she noticed a pattern of uneven coverage of the issue from the beginning, and she said DeCriscio demonstrated that she could not report on campus preachers with objectivity.
“[The DePauw] knew this was an important story to get right and report on impressively, to ask tough questions of the police, the administration, the Evangelists, the students,” Kissinger said. “It became very clear, very soon that Nicole wasn’t up to the task of gathering the diversity of opinions.”
She said Nicole focused most of her attention on the preachers, and went out of her way to make a “public spectacle” by breaking the barricade to provide them refreshments instead of reporting on their third visit to school objectively.
“By virtue of Nicole writing an essay calling for the campus to embrace the message of these people, it was deemed quite offensive,” Kissinger said.
She said the messages of the campus Evangelists were not gentle, but rather inciteful, even going so far to taunt students about mixed-raced relations in the midst of racial tensions on campus.
“[The DePauw staff members] have to be sensitive to the newspaper’s reputation of fairness, balance and honesty for people to look to for reporters to ask tough questions,” Kissinger said. “We no longer felt Nicole was able to do this for this story.”
While DeCriscio argues the story on The Campus Ministry USA was over when she wrote her article, Nichols-Pethick said it was still ongoing.
“The story wasn’t over,” he said. “There was no way to know that the campus ministries would not return to campus and continue their attempt at engaging the students and staff.”
He added that the university is also working with an independent review committee that has yet to deliver their final report on the incidents. He said that the report and its aftermath will be reported by The DePauw.
Nichols-Pethick said if DeCriscio would have written her essay for The DePauw and removed herself from any further reporting on, or oversight of, the story, it would have provided the kind of transparency that a code of ethics would require of a reporter and editor-in-chief.
Andrew Seaman, SPJ’s ethics chair, said in Koretzky’s blog post that the individuals on The DePauw publications board who fired DeCriscio overreacted and took “draconian” action. Giving protesters sandwiches and drinks, he said, wouldn’t interfere with DeCriscio’s ability to do a good job as editor.
Seaman said later that after emailing with Kissinger, he has a nagging feeling that this was a situation that “unnecessarily spiraled into a hullabaloo.”
“My stance is that student journalists are at school to learn and make mistakes so they don’t repeat those offenses in their professional lives,” he said.
In the end, DeCriscio said she is disappointed that The DePauw staff and publications board didn’t use her mistake as a “teaching moment.” She said student media is the kind of place where it is typically okay to make mistakes, as long as they are not extreme, like plagiarism.
Still, Nichols-Pethick said the newspaper’s advisers, including Kissinger, worked with DeCriscio on her reporting of the story every step of the way.
“The fact that she was ultimately suspended over this particular issue does not mean that she wasn’t mentored and guided carefully over a long period of time about this issue and others,” he said.
Kissinger said she gave DeCriscio substantial counseling, advising and “hand-holding,” but felt that DeCriscio wasn’t fit to manage the newspaper anymore. She said DeCriscio could reapply for her position next semester, but DeCriscio is graduating.
Now DeCriscio will head to New York in March to share her story with journalists from across the nation.
“Even if I present at [the College Media convention] and people think I made a mistake and got what I deserved, there is a benefit to having a conversation about it,” she said. “One of the most amazing things about the journalism world is that everyone is okay with talking about mistakes and moving on.”
SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.
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